The Association of Communitarian Health Services (ASECSA) and the Role of Religion and Health in Central America
The Association of Communitarian Health Services (ASECSA) is a transnational, religiously influenced health program in Central America created during the Cold War. ASECSA was founded in 1978 by a small group of international health professionals with ties to programs started by Catholic and Protestant clergy and laity in Guatemala’s western highlands in the 1960s. It introduced a model of healthcare in which Maya health promoters and midwives became partners in healing rather than objects to be cured. Support for the health programs and ASECSA came from secular and religious international agencies, including the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), German Misereor, Catholic Relief Services, and the World Council of Churches. ASECSA was founded to disseminate knowledge of popular health education strategies used by health promoters and midwives to provide preventive and curative medical services to their communities. The education methods grew from Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and its use by religious agents influenced by liberation theology. Although it was founded in Guatemala, ASECSA’s publications and meetings attracted participation by health professionals and paraprofessionals from Mexico, Central America, and even the Caribbean. Ecumenical religious centers affiliated with liberation theology in the 1960s and 1970s facilitated the development of popular health programs that played a defining role in the region.
The history of Mexican Catholicism between 1910 and 2010 was one of successive conflict and compromise with the state, latterly coupled with increased concern about religious pluralism, secularization, and divisions of both style and theological and ecclesiological substance within Catholicism. The Mexican Revolution (1910–1920) represented a particular threat to the church, which was identified by many revolutionaries as an institution allied to the old regime, and hence persecuted. In the same period, and until 1929, the church was openly committed to implementing its own social and political project in competition with the state. Religious conflict reached a tragic peak in the 1920s and 1930s, as revolutionary anticlericals waged political and cultural campaigns against the church, provoking both passive and armed resistance by Catholics. With some exceptions, the period from the late 1930s to the late 1960s was one of comparative church–state conciliation, and a period of institutional collaboration that began when both institutions stood down their militant cadres in the 1930s. In subsequent decades, an over-clericalized and socially conservative church and a theoretically revolutionary but undemocratic state made common cause around the poles of civic and Catholic nationalism, economic stability, and anti-communism. From the later 1960s, however, the church grew increasingly vocal as a critical interlocutor of the state, in terms of both the Institutional Revolutionary Party’s failing socioeconomic model and, especially in the 1980s, its authoritarian political practices. In places, radical strains of Liberation Theology helped to guide indigenous and urban protests against the regime, while also posing an internal, ecclesial problem for the church itself. The rise of economic neoliberalism and qualified democracy from the 1980s onward, as well as the political reorientation of Catholicism under the papacy of John Paul II, saw the church assume a frankly intransigent position, but one that was significantly appeased by the 1992 constitutional reforms that restored the church’s legal personality. After 1992, the church gained in political prominence but lost social relevance. Should the church cleave to an unofficial corporatist relationship with a generally supportive state in the face of rising religious competition? Should Catholics assert their newfound freedoms more independently in a maturing lay regime? A cursory view of Catholicism’s religious landscape today reveals that the tension between more horizontal and vertical expressions of Catholicism remains unresolved. Catholics are to be found in the van of rural self-defense movements, leading transnational civic protests against judicial impunity, and decrying the abuses suffered by Central American migrants at the hands of border vigilantes. At the same time, the mainstream church seeks official preferment of Catholicism by the state and lends moral support to the PRI and PAN parties alike.
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Latin American History. Please check back later for the full article.
During the Cold War’s earliest years, right-wing governments and oligarchic elites in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua fostered closer relationships with the Catholic Church. Dictatorial leaders like Guatemala’s Carlos Castillo Armas and dynastic regimes like Nicaragua’s Somoza family regarded the church as an ally against perceived Marxist influence in the region. Those ties began to fray in the late 1960s, as the Second Vatican Council’s foundational reforms moved Catholicism further to the political and social left around the globe. This shift was especially prominent in Central America, where Catholics like El Salvador’s Archbishop Óscar Arnulfo Romero and Guatemala’s Father Stanley Rother were among Central America’s most visible critics and reformers as political violence increased across the region during the 1970s. Relatedly, evangelical Protestants, particularly Pentecostal groups based in the United States, flooded Central America throughout that decade. Their staunch anti-communism and established ties to influential policy makers and political lobbyists in the United States, among other factors, gave evangelical Protestants greater influence in US-Central American relations. Their influence was strongest during the early 1980s, when José Efraín Ríos Montt, an ordained Pentecostal minister with Eureka, California’s, Verbo Ministries, seized Guatemala’s presidency via a coup in March 1982. Notable US evangelical leaders like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson praised Ríos Montt’s regime for its rabid anti-communist ideology, while President Ronald Reagan claimed that the dictator had received a “bum rap” in the global press. Concurrently, some US evangelical missioners and pastors also foregrounded the Sandinista government’s anti-Protestant activities as additional justification for US support for Nicaragua’s Contra forces. Religious actors were also instrumental to Central America’s peace processes after the Cold War, as Catholic and Protestant leaders alike worked closely with regional governments and the United States to end decades of political violence and enact meaningful socioeconomic reforms for the region’s citizens.
Reinaldo L. Román
Espiritismo refers to the practice of communicating with the spirits of the dead by means of especially disposed and trained persons known as mediums. Linked in origin to the Spiritualist movement that swept through the United States and Europe after 1848, espiritistas in Cuba drew primarily from French and Spanish sources, especially the writings of French systematizer Allan Kardec (1804–1869). Following Kardec, espiritistas asserted that spirits survived death, progressing over numerous incarnations until they attained perfect knowledge and morality. Kardec, who described his pursuits as an experimental science rather than as a faith, was less influential among Anglo-American spiritualists. Among other differences, spiritualists questioned Kardec’s notion of reincarnation, the key to what he called the “law of [spiritual] progress.”
In Cuba, a Spanish colony until 1898, espiritismo grew in popularity in the last third of the 19th century, a period of wrenching anti-colonial and anti-slavery struggles that led separatists to denounce the Catholic Church for its support of Spanish colonialism. Communications with spirits persuaded non-conformists, mostly literate town and city residents of the middling classes, that a new age of technological and moral progress was dawning. In Havana, Santiago de Cuba, Barcelona, and Madrid, espiritistas challenged the Church for its refusal to recognize evidence derived from spirit communications. Practitioners maintained that knowledge acquired from superior spirits could renew Christianity, heal the sick, and open up new vistas of the cosmos. Generally associated with liberalism, espiritistas contested the doctrinal authority of the Church and its public functions. Persuaded of the essential equality of all spirits, espiritistas advocated civil marriage, lay schools, hospitals, cemeteries, the end of capital punishment, the abolition of slavery, and reforms favoring individual freedoms for men and women. Fearful that espiritismo could fuel anti-colonial dissent, Spanish officials in Cuba sought to limit the circulation of espiritista texts. Clerics condemned the practice in vehement terms.
The Ten Year’s War (1868–1878) marked a turning point in the development of espiritismo. Following the decade-long nationalist insurgency, espiritista groups multiplied. Espiritismo gained adherents among campesinos and people of color, including those in eastern Cuba, where the separatist movement had its most ardent supporters. Although espiritistas were not all revolutionaries, practitioners were well represented in the multi-racial army that waged the War of Independence (1895–1898) with the aim of establishing a sovereign and racially egalitarian republic. The 1890s and early 1900s also witnessed the rise of ritually and nominally distinct forms of espiritismo. In eastern Cuba, a communal healing practice known as espiritismo de cordón became popular. Practitioners of Afro-Cuban religions, including Regla de Ocha (Santería) and Palo, incorporated espiritista practices of medium communication. Espiritismo cruzado, a practice inspired by African and espiritista sources, also gained adherents across the island.
In 1898, when the United States intervened in Cuba, bringing thirty years of recurrent warfare to an abrupt end, much of the island was in ruins. The Cuban insurgent army had destroyed plantations to deprive Spain of revenue. Spain, for its part, had pursued a policy of reconcentración (1896–1897). These were measures aimed at denying separatists the support of rural Cubans. Hundreds of thousands of campesinos were forced to relocate to garrisoned camps established in cities and towns under Spanish control. As Spanish officers had anticipated, reconcentrados and refugees overwhelmed the fragile urban infrastructure. The results were widespread hunger, epidemics, and the deaths of a 150,000 to 170,000 people, according to a recent estimate by historian Guadalupe García.
When the United States installed a military government in Cuba in 1898, the reconstruction of war-ravaged cities, restoration of agriculture, and resettlement of the displaced population were among its most pressing priorities. Havana’s urban periphery alone counted 242,055 indigent residents in 1899. Espiritistas responded to the neocolonial government’s urban planning with designs of their own. After witnessing the expansion of El Vedado, a Havana suburb lauded for embodying the virtues of the nascent order, an otherwise unknown espiritista named Antonio Ojeda y Cabral launched a quixotic campaign. In a free pamphlet, Ojeda proposed a blueprint for the construction of a new kind of city, one purpose-built to promote material and spiritual regeneration of society. Painstakingly articulated as the vision was, El que entienda, recoja: A que os libertéis vosotros sois llamados (1908) was remarkable for its silence on matters of race, a fault line that cut across politics and urban planning alike. Ojeda’s rhetoric aligned him with the predominant strain of Cuban nationalism. Advocates, including José Martí, defined Cubanness as transcending racial differences, but decried race-based mobilizations as threats to national unity and sovereignty.
In the eastern province of Oriente, espiritistas de cordón responded to neocolonial plans with the construction of healing compounds. These centros espirituales challenged the schemes for urban renewal and agro-industrial expansion that the government promoted in Santiago de Cuba’s suburb of Vista Alegre and in newly established sugar plantations. The centers afforded a small number of insurgent veterans access to housing and plots of land, and gave victims of the war a chance to build communities in line with their aspirations of eastern insurgents. Their regional understanding of national liberation called for racial equality without demanding silence. Despite such differences, early 20th-century espiritismo offered Cubans in Oriente and Havana futures beyond those that government officials and developers sought to build.
The mission economy supported tens of thousands of Guaraní Indians and made the Jesuit reducciones (1609 to 1767) the most populous and financially prosperous of all the missions among native peoples of the Americas. The communal structure of collective labor, shared ownership, and redistribution of communal property formed the basis of the mission economy and seemed to leave little room for the possession of private property, independent trade, and economic initiative on the part of the resident Guaraní. Late 18th century Jesuit authors reinforced such an understanding in an attempt to defend their order and its actions in Paraguay. They argued that the Guaraní were incapable of managing their own affairs and that Jesuit management of the communally structured economy was indispensible for the wellbeing of both the missions and the Guaraní. Such accounts overlook evidence to the contrary. Mission Guaraní did in fact own private property—yerba mate, horses, clothing, and jewelry—and Jesuit leaders repeatedly issued orders for the missionaries to allow the Guaraní to independently trade yerba mate. Furthermore, although Jesuit authors repeatedly denied that they paid mission Guaraní wages—to do so would go against the communal structure that they so vehemently defended—the missionaries acknowledged that they paid mission Guaraní bonuses as a reward for their skills or extra labor. These bonuses served as a way to motivate individual economic initiative or agency within the framework of the missions’ communal structure. In sum, the communal structure allowed for more flexibility in the ownership of private property, independent commerce, and economic initiative by the Guaraní than has been portrayed in both the 18th century writings of Jesuit authors and much of the current literature.
Michael Kenneth Huner
Like many topics in Paraguayan history, the subjects of popular religion and death are under-researched. And yet, if we can conclude anything about them, experiences involving popular religion and death, like many cultural aspects in Paraguay, have intersected with experiences of nationhood. We find many historical and present-day manifestations of this, most conspicuously in language, which inevitably also draws our attention to questions of syncretic religious legacies. Still today most Paraguayans speak Guaraní, a vernacular of indigenous origin. This language itself is a colonial product of the “spiritual conquest,” whose subsequent role in galvanizing popular participation in two postcolonial wars has long been noted. In fact, perusing national monuments and local cemeteries today draws us to a specific time period when many formative links among syncretic experiences of religion, death, and nationhood were being constructed: the fateful López era (1840–1870) that culminated in the cataclysmic War of the Triple Alliance. Here we find how a modern nation-building project attempted to channel, rather than suppress, popular religious energies, and we encounter the many contradictory, and formative, consequences this project produced. A sampling of scholarly literature and primary sources from within a broader framework of Paraguayan history likewise reveals how links among popular religion, death, and state formation are indeed recurring themes for more research that needs to be done.
Laura de Mello e Souza
Popular religiosity in colonial Brazil was marked by the process of colonization, which placed populations of differing ethnic and cultural origins together in dynamic and conflicting ways. On the one hand, the lived experiences of these various populations reflected the beliefs of their continent of origin: Europe, Africa, and America. On the other hand, they were unavoidably intertwined, giving rise to novel forms of religious practice. Heterodox behaviors were notable from the beginning of colonization, adding to the peculiarities of the slave system that constituted colonial life and defined its social relations. In a vast territory over which the surveillance and control of religious institutions—both ecclesiastical and inquisitorial—proved unworkable, daily experiences of religiosity became increasingly distinct from the more dogmatic and “official” traits sustained by the Catholic Church. A particular type of religiosity, as heterodox and mixed as the population itself, took shape within the limits of Catholicism while continuously escaping its confines. Catholicism endured from the earliest times as the guiding orientation of Brazil, supported by the Crown as well as regular and secular clergy alike. The education of the elites was Catholic, and many of the earliest writings about the new land of Brazil came from the quills of the pious, producing foundational images marked by religious metaphors. For these reasons, popular religiosity reveals a great deal about the nature of Brazilian culture, and it is necessary to analyze it within the context of broader dynamics that define popular beliefs that do not always fit within the orthodox guidelines of official Catholicism and erudition.
The role of religion shifted dramatically in Central American politics during the 20th century, as the Catholic Church moved from a position as conservator of the status quo to a powerful force for reform and human rights. The century also witnessed the rise, then the “boom,” of Protestant—specifically Pentecostal—religion. By the century’s end, Central America had become among the most Protestant regions of Latin America, with every country except Costa Rica and Belize measuring a large and rising evangélico minority. These changes unfolded alongside, and deeply affected, one of the most traumatic and violent periods in the region’s history, the so-called Central American crisis of the late 1970s and 1980s, when Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala became the battlegrounds for one of the last large proxy wars of the larger Cold War, between Marxist insurgencies and authoritarian governments.
Luis R. Corteguera
Between the 16th and 18th centuries, the Inquisition in New Spain tried individuals for a broad range of sacrilegious acts against religious objects, including spitting, trampling, stabbing, and breaking them to pieces. Men and women also desecrated images through verbal insults, irreverent gestures, and even sexual acts. In most of these cases, the term sacrilege does not adequately reflect the often-complex motivations behind such actions. The Protestant iconoclastic violence of the 16th century unleashed on Catholic sacred images has made us think of acts of sacrilege as primarily directed at denying the power of images and their ability to represent divinity. Yet even seemingly obvious cases of iconoclasm in New Spain challenge this assumption. In many and possibly most cases, such actions betrayed the longing of men and women for spiritual closeness with divinity. The anger, desperation, and desolation sacrilegists sometimes expressed were not always unlike the ardent emotions that sacred images could elicit from devout Catholics. At other times, men and women sought to appropriate the power of sacred images and relics for reasons that challenge an easy distinction between religious and superstitious intentions. Taken together, cases of sacrilege, blasphemy, desecration, irreverence, profanation, and superstition can therefore reveal the variety and creativity of authorized and unauthorized religious practices in colonial Spanish America.
The Spanish language arrived in Latin America as a tool of Iberian colonization. Indigenous languages struggled to survive under the implacable presence of an imperial tongue serving not only to make all subjects part of the Spanish Empire but also, and primarily, as a mechanism to evangelize a population considered by the conquistadors, soldiers, missionaries, and entrepreneurs as barbaric. During the age of independence (1810–1910), defined by bloody armed movements, the emerging republics in Mexico, South America, and the Caribbean Basin declared their autonomy by seceding politically, economically, and legally from Spain while pushing for a vigorous nationalist agenda that shaped them as nations. Spanish was an agglutinating force toward a new collective identity, regionally and locally. Important figures like Venezuelan philologist, lexicographer, and diplomat Andrés Bello established an agenda that helped define the cultural parameters of the young republics in terms of grammar, syntax, and morphology. Followers include Rufino José Cuervo.
Various aesthetic movements, such as modernismo, led by figures like Rubén Darío and José Martí, helped consolidate a transnational sense of linguistic unity. During the 20th century, the nationalist fever spread throughout Latin America, encouraging educators to establish pedagogical patterns that emphasized the uniqueness of the language within the country’s context. The effort was supported by ethnographers, anthropologists, and sociolinguists like the Cuban Fernando Ortiz and Venezuelan Ángel Rosenblat intent on finding what was local in the language. Simultaneously, each nation developed its own idiosyncratic media, which, again, allowed for verbal peculiarities to be included while also driving toward a standardized form. In this atmosphere, the Spanish language has been used as an organ of control by the state. It is also an invaluable tool through which to understand regional, national, and cultural differences.
By the end of the millennium, a new phenomenon emerged, not in Latin America per se yet intimately linked to it: Spanglish. It is a hybrid tongue used by millions of immigrants in the United States, whose power is increasing as time goes by. Spanglish has the potential of reconfiguring the way the Spanish language is understood in the future.